Sickness absence conversation

Sickness Absence Management: a simple guide

Between 2000 and 2020, the UK economy lost more than 1 working hour in every 50 to sickness absence. Although that may not seem a huge number, it’s a cumulative loss of more than 3 billion working days over this period.1

The cost of sickness absence

In monetary terms, sickness absence costs an average of £503 per worker in 2020.2 With 32.5 million workers in the UK that year, you arrive at a cost for sickness absence in 2020 alone of £16.36 billion.3

Clearly, sickness absence is a major problem with a major price tag to match. So how do you manage it?

Sickness absence management

What causes sickness absence?

To tackle sickness absence, employers must first get under the bonnet and understand its root causes.

The leading identifiable cause — minor illnesses — accounted for 22% of days lost to sickness in 2020. This includes coughs, colds and nausea/sickness/diarrhoea; common but thankfully typically mild ailments usually requiring nothing more than letting them run their course. Employers are therefore hard-pushed to tackle these illnesses.

However, musculoskeletal problems caused 17.5% of sickness absences in 2020, followed by 13.4% caused by mental health conditions.1 Employers can make a significant difference to absences in these areas with appropriate intervention, including an absence management policy.

Prevention is better than cure

While some might think absence management only begins once an employee falls ill, by that time it’s almost too late. Any illness or injury requiring an employee to take time off sick means they’re suffering physically or mentally.

Fortunately, employers can help prevent sickness absence in the first place by tackling problems early while they’re still small and manageable, before they become larger issues.

Improve your mental health and wellbeing policy

The government’s 2017 Stevenson/Farmer report Thriving at Work recommended all organisations, whatever their size, should:

  • Offer tools to address and prevent mental ill health caused or worsened by work
  • Support individuals with mental health conditions, from recruitment right through their careers
  • Make employees aware of how to get timely support to reduce sickness absence caused by mental ill health.

These and similar measures may be included in your workplace mental health and wellbeing policy, which can help establish how you’ll manage workplace mental health. Unum can help customers review their policy. We’ll work with you to look at your current provisions, develop a plan to improve them if necessary and then help you implement those changes.

Training line managers to manage employees’ health and wellbeing, as well as sickness absence should it occur, is key to building a healthy working environment. That’s why Unum offers our CPD-accredited line manager training workshops to ensure they feel confident and capable when dealing with a range of conditions related to absence and wellbeing.

Wellbeing Checks

If you notice employees exhibiting behavioural changes at work, they may be struggling with their wellbeing. It could be time to check in and ask how they’re doing. Such changes include:

  • Reduced engagement
  • Unusual irritability
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Tiredness
  • Worsening memory
  • Taking more sick days.

All employees covered by Unum Group Income Protection can book a Wellbeing Check, a 1-2-1 session with our in-house rehabilitation team who’ll assist with all aspects of their wellbeing.

Employee benefits and employee assistance programmes

Although employee benefits often focus on financially supporting ill employees, many make various benefits available at no cost that can help prevent sickness absence.

This might include an employee assistance programme, such as that provided to employees of eligible Unum customers by LifeWorks.4 This offers a 24/7 confidential helpline for support on issues of concern that could lead to as sickness absence through stress or poor mental health, such as lifestyle or finances.

Alternatively, employees covered by such policies may have added benefits available to them. This includes Unum’s Help@hand,4 our health and wellbeing app. Help@hand offers rapid digital GP appointments any time, day or night, plus fast, direct access to qualified mental healthcare professionals and physiotherapists to tackle mental ill health and musculoskeletal concerns.

New for 2022, employers can access employee Help@hand usage data with the Help@hand Insights Report. This provides totally anonymous insights (to ensure confidentiality, it is only available for employers where 50 or more employees have booked a consultation) into how employees use Help@hand. Employers can then build a detailed snapshot of difficulties their workforce is experiencing and dynamically shape their health and wellbeing strategy to match employees’ needs.

Managing sickness absence and the return to work

If an employee does become ill, employers can also play an active role in eventually helping them back on their feet.

Employees should never feel forced back to work, especially before they are physically and/or mentally ready. However, encouraging them to engage with rehabilitation services can be helpful to their recovery.

Small to medium enterprise staff meeting

Vocational rehabilitation

Vocational rehabilitation comes in many forms. For instance, at Unum we facilitate a dialogue between employers and employees who are unwell at work or absent through sickness.

When the two parties express their wants, needs and expectations openly, often reasonable adjustments or accommodations can be found to reduce the risk of an employee becoming further unwell, or even assist them back to work if they’re already off sick. This can include a phased return to work, with a gradual build-up of hours, or flexible arrangements that allow an employee to balance work and their health.

Our in-house Vocational Rehabilitation & Wellbeing Consultants also work with ill employees to try and improve their condition, return their quality of life and ease them back into the workplace if possible. This team includes healthcare professionals such as nurses, psychologists, physiotherapists and occupational therapists to support across the spectrum of health conditions and they have a positive success rate — individuals referred to them who engaged with the service were able to return to work an average of 23 days faster than those who did not.5

Return to work interviews

More than 4 in 5 employers use return-to-work interviews for managing sickness absence. They can be useful for both employers and employees by ensuring an employee’s return is managed smoothly.6

They also identify underlying or ongoing health issues which may cause future absences and put processes in place to ensure the employee’s health is managed better in the workplace in future to reduce the risk of them becoming so ill they need to take time off again. To help conduct return to work interviews, the Health and Safety Executive offers this useful interview template.

The bottom line

Ultimately, it’s better for employees (and your company) to avoid sickness absence ever occurring.

While it’s impossible to eliminate sickness absence entirely, and such a draconian policy isn’t sensible, what is possible is to change how you manage employee health and wellbeing at work. You can also provide access to a variety of tools to help employees manage their own health and wellbeing, such as remote healthcare services or employee assistance programmes.

Preventative measures will always be the first line of defence for managing sickness absence, but if an employee does become ill there are many options to help them with their recovery and get them back on their feet where possible.

This combination of preventative measures and an active approach to managing sickness absence (e.g., rehabilitation support, regular check-ins with absent employees and return to work interviews) will generally provide the best outcomes for all.

More information

1 Office for National Statistics, Sickness absence in the UK labour market: 2020 March 2021
2 XpertHR,
Absence rates and costs: 2021
3 Office for National Statistics,
Number of People in Employment (aged 16 and over, seasonally adjusted), December 2021
4 Access to the service is facilitated by Unum at no cost to the Unum customer. Unum is not the provider of the service but can withdraw or change the service at any time. The service is entirely separate from any insurance policy provided by Unum and is subject to the terms and conditions of the relevant third-party specialists. There is no additional cost or increase in premium as a result of Unum making this benefit available.
5 Unum internal data. Covers individuals referred to our vocational rehabilitation team in the 5 years to March 31st 2021.
Health and Wellbeing at Work 2021, p.27

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